ISLAMIC ART-The Alhambra of Granada

The summer apartments of the Alhambra royal palace, the residence of the monarchs of Granada, have been preserved almost intact. It is assumed, without great fundament, that the winter palace was ordered to be demolished by Charles the Vth for the purpose of making instead a Renaissance building which remained unfinished.

The Alhambra was erected on the hill of the Assabica in the XIV century by sultans Yusuf I (1333-1353) and  Muhammed V, Sultan of Granada (1353-1391), called el-Ahmar (the “Red”), of the Nasser dynasty. The name of Alhambra literally means “the Red (female)”, because its predominant color, seen from afar, is that of the red bricks of the exterior construction and the red clay of the surroundings of which the fort itself is made.

The Alhambra palace and fortress complex (Granada, Andalusia, Spain) was originally constructed as a small fortress in 889 AD. on the remains of Roman fortifications, and then ignored until its ruins were renovated and rebuilt in the mid-13th century by the Nasrid emir Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar of the Emirate of Granada. Later in 1333, it was converted into a royal palace by Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada. The palace complex is designed in the Nasrid style, the last blooming of Islamic Art in the Iberian Peninsula. Top: General view of the whole complex of the Alhambra. Bottom: The Court of the Myrtles (“Patio de los Arrayanes”), also called the Court of the Blessing or Court of the Pond (“Patio de la Alberca”). The pool helped to cool the palace and acted as a symbol of power. Because water was usually in short supply, the technology required to keep these pools full was expensive and difficult. The pond is located at the center of the courtyard in the marble pavement, it is full of goldfish, and with myrtles growing along its sides. In the background is the Tower of Comares (“Torre de Comares”).

In the same way that the Roman Empire imposed its customs and artistic sense even in the most remote provinces, so Islam imposed its mentality to the ends of the then-known Western world. The Islam introduced the Mesopotamian and Persian artistic styles and construction techniques to Andalusia. The Alhambra is a magnificent work of art but its beauty is enhanced by being located in such western lands. The Alhambra is essentially a totally oriental-style residence that seems to have been magically transported from Baghdad or Tehran.

The strangest thing is the very little Spanish artistic influence seen in the construction. In the mosque of Cordoba we find Roman columns and capitals, the classical basilica layout with multiple naves, and the shape of the horseshoe arch that was taken from the Visigoths. Nothing of these appears in the Alhambra: the classical, the Roman, the Visigoth and the Latin influences have been eclipsed to make room for something entirely exotic and Muslim.

If the winter part of the palace had been preserved, those more closed and more compact rooms would have revealed some influence of the Spanish Gothic style that can be found in the Alcazar of Seville. But as it is today the Alhambra, reduced to the patios and pavilions of the summer residence, it is a fantastic building abandoned by Islam in Western Europe as a witness to the tenacity and uniqueness of its artistic character.

Top Left: The Hall of the Ambassadors (“Salón de los Embajadores”) is the largest room in the Alhambra and occupies the Tower of Comares. This was the grand reception room, and the throne of the sultan was placed opposite the entrance. The grand hall projects from the walls of the palace, providing views in three directions. In this sense, it was a “mirador” from which the palace’s inhabitants could gaze outward to the surrounding landscape. Top Right and Bottom (Left and Right): The Court of the Lions (“Patio de los Leones”), an oblong courtyard surrounded by a low gallery supported on 124 white marble columns. A pavilion projects into the court at each extremity, with filigree walls and a light domed roof. The square is paved with coloured tiles and the colonnade with white marble, while the walls are partially covered with blue and yellow tiles, with a border above and below of enamelled blue and gold. In the center of the courtyard is the celebrated Fountain of Lions, a magnificent alabaster basin supported by the figures of twelve lions in white marble.

The Court of the Myrtles (Patio de los Arrayanes), the Hall of the Ambassadors (Sala de Embajadores), the court of the Lions (Patio de los Leones), the Hall of the Abencerrajes, the hall of the Two sisters (Sala de las Dos Hermanas) and the Justice Hall (Sala de Justicia), the Baths and the Boudoir (Peinador), all at first glance seem to be places only suitable as a backdrop of a fairy tale.

The complex floor plan of the Alhambra allows to recognize its layout divided into the three fundamental units found in all the palaces of the Muslim princes: a) the mexuar*, open to all, in which the sultan* administered justice and received his subjects; b) the diwan* for the receptions, in which the throne room was located, and e) the harim* (or harem) with the private rooms of the prince.

Top Left: The “Honeycomb,” “stalactite,” or “mozarabic” vaulting* in the Hall of the Abencerrajes (“Sala de los Abencerrajes”). This hall derives its name from a legend according to which the father of Boabdil, the last sultan of Granada, having invited the chiefs of that line to a banquet, massacred them here. The room is a perfect square, with a lofty dome and trellised windows at its base. Top Right: The mozarabic vault of the Hall of the Two Sisters (“Sala de las Dos Hermanas”), this hall is located opposite to the Hall of the Abencerrajes, and it is so-called from two white marble slabs laid as part of the pavement. There is a fountain in the middle, and the roof — a dome honeycombed with tiny cells, all different, and said to number 5000 — is an example of the “stalactite vaulting*” of the Moors. Bottom Left: A panoramic view from the Queen’s Robing Room (“Peinador de la Reina”), this room is located in an Andalusian tower and was used by the Sultan for recreation and meditation. The upper floor could serve as a royal dressing room and could have been used by Queen Isabel de Farnesio. Bottom Right: View of the Royal Baths, the jewel of the Muslim house, they were constructed copying Roman baths. They include three rooms: one for changing clothes and resting, a second for massages or refreshment, and a third consisting in the steam rooms.

The building techniques used for the Alhambra are still those typical of nomadic peoples: the supporting elements, which together with the beams or the light vaults form the skeleton of the building, are similar to the structure of a desert tent, and the panels are covered with carvings in plaster, whose decoration is overloaded with design and color. All the decorative elements of the Alhambra were polychrome; the stuccos with arabesques and the inscriptions on the walls still preserve traces of color and some of the gold painting.

The tiles, the marquetry and the plaster reliefs are the main elements of the Alhambra’s decoration, and in some areas, this same decorative elements allude to verses of the Koran.

The floor plan of the Alhambra is circumscribed inside a vast walled enclosure. Its external aspect, imposing as a fortress, is transformed in the most fascinating arrangement in the interior areas. Its most important rooms include the great enclosure (excluding the new buildings that disfigure it), the alcazaba or citadel, almost destroyed, and the proper palace. Outside of this enclosure and guarded by numerous towers are the sumptuous pavilions of the Generalife (or Jennat al-Arif  “Garden of Arif” or “Garden of the Architect”) that formed a separate building built in 1339 and still partially subsistent. Everyday life developed around two large patios: the Patio of the Pool also called the Courtyard of the Myrtles (Patio de la Alberca o de los Arrayanes) that corresponds to the center of the diwan, and the famous Courtyard of the Lions that corresponds to the center of the harim.

The celebrated and beautiful decoration of the Alhambra (mostly located in the upper part of its walls), consists of Arabic inscriptions—mostly poems by Ibn Zamrak and others praising the palace—that are manipulated into geometrical patterns with plant background set onto an arabesque setting (“Ataurique”) forming intricated filigree. Much of this ornament is carved stucco (plaster) rather than stone. Top Left: Decorations in the Court of the Lions. Top Right: Decorations in the Hall of Justice. Bottom Left: The “mirador” of Lin-dar-Aixa with stucco and tile decorations. Bottom Right: The tile mosaics (“alicatado”) decorations of the Alhambra are remarkable in that they contain nearly all of the 17 mathematically possible wallpaper groups* with complicated mathematical patterns, a unique accomplishment in world architecture. M. C. Escher’s visited the Alhambra in 1922 and studied the Moorish use of symmetries in its tile decoration, these studies inspired his subsequent work on tessellation*, which he called “regular divisions of the plane”. In the picture, the ceramic tile patterns decorating the Court of the Lions.

The walls of the Alhambra are covered with arabesques that hide the bare walls; the wooden ceilings disappear behind the hanging stalactites of painted plaster. The art of these multiple plaster elements, which has its apotheosis in the Alhambra, belongs to a peculiar Mediterranean art school; in India, in Syria and in Persia, the vaults are formed by alveoli or overlapping shells but without standing out from the vault’s curved surfaces, they are not arranged in stalactites hanging from the ceiling, as they are in Egypt, Morocco and Spain. The French general Beyle while exploring an abandoned city in the Regency of Tunisia where the fort of Al Qal’a of Beni Hammad stood, found these special plaster elements that characterize the Hispano-Moroccan Islamic art schools. The Beni Hammad fort was built in the early years of the tenth century and abandoned shortly after. It then indicates a certain date in which this particular type of decoration was first used.

On the walls of the Alhambra, in addition to the plaster panels with polychrome reliefs, there are glazed ceramic-covered areas with magnificent drawings in which the use of gold abounds. Water flows through the rooms’ floors, and the windows open onto the myrtle gardens, with shallow pools imitating those of the Oriental residences where water is scarce.

Top Left: View of the Court of the Water Channel (“Patio de la Acequia”) in the Palacio de Generalife (“Architect’s Garden”) in the Alhambra complex. This villa dates from the beginning of the 14th century but has been restored several times. Top Right and Bottom: Views of the ruins of the Beni Hammad Fort or Al Qal’a of Beni Hammad, a fortified Muslim palatine city in Algeria (Africa). In the 11th century served as the first capital of the Hammadid dynasty. The ruins include a 7-km (4 mi) line of walls, four residential complexes, and the largest mosque built in Algeria after that of Mansurah.

This Andalusian-Arab style has been preserved in Morocco, where there are still buildings of the same technique and style found in the Alhambra. But what gives special importance to this Royal Alcazar of Granada is that it has been preserved without the transformations that have modernized all the other Muslim royal residences, from those of Persia to those of Morocco. In its perfect state of preservation, the Alhambra is a more oriental palace than the current ones found in the East itself.


Alicatado: A mosaic formed of polygonal, colored glazed tiles. Made up into geometric patterns, they have been used mostly for paving Spanish and Moorish patios but also for wall surfaces. The expansion of the lands under Christian control in Spain in the 13th century led to a mixture of Gothic and Islamic styles (known as the Mudéjar style), in which alicatado was much used by Spanish craftsmen. These traditional patterns continue to be used, especially where Spanish or Arabic influences are strong.

Ataurique: The prevalent use in art or architecture of a repeating decorative motif consisting of a plant or floral pattern, especially as formerly practiced in Islamic Spain and North Africa.



Diwan: The guest house or reception areas of the tribal chieftain in the tribal Middle Eastern, Arab, Persian, or Kurdish society.

Harem: (from the Arabic meaning “a sacred inviolable place; female members of the family”). Refers to domestic spaces that are reserved for the women of the house in a Muslim family and are inaccessible to adult males except for close relations. 


Mexuar: In a Muslim palace, the Mexuar houses the functional areas for conducting business and administration.




Stalactite Vaulting: Also known as Muqarnas, is a form of ornamented vaulting in Islamic architecture. It is the archetypal form of Islamic architecture, integral to the vernacular of Islamic buildings. The muqarnas structure originated from the squinch. Sometimes called “honeycomb vaulting or “Stalactite vaulting”. Muqarnas is significant in Islamic architecture, because its elaborate form is a symbolic representation of universal creation by God. Muqarnas architecture is featured in domes, half-dome entrances, iwans and apses. The two main types of muqarnas are the North African/Middle Eastern style, composed of a series of downward triangular projections, and the Iranian style, composed of connecting tiers of segments.

Sultan: (from the Arabic abstract noun meaning “strength”, “authority”, “rulership”).  The title of certain rulers who claimed almost full sovereignty in practical terms, albeit without claiming the overall caliphate, or to refer to a powerful governor of a province within the caliphate.



Tessellation: A tessellation of a flat surface is the tiling of a plane using one or more geometric shapes, called tiles, with no overlaps and no gaps. Historically, tessellations were used in Ancient Rome and in Islamic art such as in the decorative geometric tiling of the Alhambra palace. In the twentieth century, the work of M. C. Escher often made use of tessellations for artistic effect. Tessellations form a class of patterns in nature, for example in the arrays of hexagonal cells found in honeycombs.

Wallpaper Group: A mathematical classification of a two-dimensional repetitive pattern, based on the symmetries in the pattern. There are 17 possible distinct groups.